Its customers extend from the Late Ustad Vilayat Khan and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan to Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and even George Harrison of The Beatles. If you ask for the shop of Rikhi Ram to any auto driver in Delhi’s Connought Place, he will betray ignorance. But once you reach there, you will be amazed by its aura, before you realise that it is a shop and not a museum.
Its third generation owner Ajay Ram himself serves at the counter and attends calls from musicians big and small. The first thing that catches your attention as you enter the store is the mesmerising hall of fame. The walls are embossed with pictures of the biggest names of Indian classical music. This shop has seen the brightest and dimmest of times.
Pt. Rikhi Ram, the founder, belonged to a family of musicians in Lahore. They specialised in making musical instruments, generation after generation. After partition, they were thrown into the quandry of Delhi where Panditji arrived with nothing except his family, his essential belongings and the rich experience of making instruments, which would later see him through the trauma of displacemement from his hometown. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru set up the rehabilitation committee and Pt. Rikhi Ram was allotted this shop in Connought Circus.
“My grandfather and my father Bishan Dass Sharma had to start from the scratch. They were in a new city, among new people and were rebuilding their life from all the scattered pieces. Those were tough times” recalls Ajay Ram, son of Bishan Daas.
Rikhi Ram began attending concerts to establish contacts with musicians, assuring them of customised service. Meanwhile, Bishan Dass began working in the maintenance cell of the A.I.R, bringing him in close contact with all the renowned names of the concert circuit. The musicians were impressed with the indepth knowledge that Pt. Rikhi Ram and his son displayed and very soon they had loyal customers in the likes of Ustad Vilayat Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar. Hordes of musicians followed.
In the 1960s, The Beatles stars George Harrison and Paul McCartney’s liking for Indian classical music brought them to Rikhi Ram, from whom they bought the sitar, Sarod, Tanpura and Tabla. “ My father gave George his first lessons in Sitar. Even today, fans of Beatles visit us saying this is the shop from where George Harrison bought his sitar” says Ajay.
How demanding can the musicians be while ordering instruments? “Today fusion music is in. People are experimenting with sound. When you perform with western instruments, you obviously need to generate a sound of high volume, which cannot be done without some adjustments in the instrument itself. Hence, things like electronic sitar have made an entry, which have to be made as per the demand of the musicians. Recently we came out with a smaller version of the sitar called the travelling sitar, which was widely appreciated in the music community. We are makers of instruments. We have to give what they want” says Ajay Ram.
Talking about the brand ‘Rikhi Ram’ Ajay muses with a smile “Rikhi Ram was my grandfather’s name. But after him, when my father took over, people began referring to him also as Rikhi Ram. He was no more Bishan Dass. My father passed away three years back and I took over. Now even I’m called Rikhi Ram. It has become a kind of sur name for us. It is our identity, which we enjoy”.
Paul McCartney of the Beatles with Pt. Bishan Dass
Times are changing and there is a widespread lamentation of a loss in classical music. But Ajay Ram begs to differ. “All this lamentation has always been there. Interest in art forms is like waves on the sea. They rise, fall and rise again. But they never die. Many fads make an entry and try to push back good music. But they will remain fads. Classical music has a tradition of thousands of years” confirms Ajay Ram with confidence.
I smile and ask him if his own children are interested to carry forward the family business. Ajay’s face beams with pride as he answers “My son is taking lessons in sitar and is very much willing to carry forward the legacy of Pt. Rikhi Ram. He is a product of that legacy like me. It will be carried forward.” He continued, “Besides, classical music has always been for the classes. You cannot expect a rickshaw driver to appreciate a dhrupad or khayal. It requires some basic understanding to enjoy it.” I understood it when the rickshaw drivers failed to take me to the right shop.
Ajay recalls brightly the lessons in business learnt from his father. “Firstly, I must thank my father for having taught me the sitar. One cannot serve the musicians without understanding the product you want to serve them. My father instilled in me an amazing sense of sound. I’ve grown up watching him deliberate on the niceties of sound with the legends of classical music over lengthy discussions. All these things have kept me in good stead. Secondly, nothing has been given more priority than quality. A minor flaw here or there and our name will be tainted.”
Quality obviously comes at a price. “People who know music do not argue about the price with us. But beginners to have an issue and express surprise at the rates we demand. I accordingly guide their way to the music shops at Daryaganj in Old Delhi becasue I do not serve that segment which is not having a basic understanding of classical music. It does not make sense to ask why Rolls Royce is not available at Rs. 5 lakhs.”
Two people enter the shop. Ajay stands up to attend to his customers. Perhaps it is this twin commitment to music and customers that brought them name, fame and even the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academy Award for contribution to Indian classical music. Ajay gets busy with the new customers, leaving me to have a relook at the galaxy of stars lining the walls of the shop. Not many understand the importance of the hands that work behind the magical an sounds of an instrument. Rikhi Ram understood it 60 years back and today the leagcy moves on, undisturbed by the waves of time.
(This article was published in the magazine I-Witness of The New Sunday Express)